The term “New Atheism” is a lie

After reading this comment on yesterday’s post on Ed Feser’s remarks about the Reason Rally, I decided I’ve heard the phrase “New Atheists” one too many times, especially when there’s an explicit contrast between the “New Atheists” and those better atheists out there. Let me tell you something: the label is a lie. When people use it, it’s because they want to believe that the views of people like me and Richard Dawkins are rare, historically speaking, because that makes us easier to dismiss.

Let’s set the record straight. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, said:

My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others.

Russell wasn’t the first person to say things like that. Not even close. Here’s another quote:

But since all these abuses, as well as all the other abuses and errors I spoke about, are only based on the belief and persuasion or opinion that there are gods, or at least, that there is a God… it is necessary now to prove and show clearly that men are still deceived in this an that there is no such being, i.e., there is no God. Consequently, men falsely and abusively use the name and authority of God to establish and maintain the errors of their religion, as well as to maintain the tyrannical power of their princes and kings.

That was said by a French priest named Jean Meslier. He wrote it in a book about religion that he left for his friends to find when he died in 1729, because it would have been too dangerous to say while he was still alive. In other words, people have thought religion is extremely harmful since before it was safe to say so publicly.

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  • jamessweet

    How do you feel about the “gnu atheism” label that many have adopted?

    I think it is useful to delineate the recent movement sparked by the Four Horsemen books as a historical entity, even if the attitudes and approaches are nothing new. Certainly it’s impact and relation to media and society has been different from what has come before.

    But I share your reservations about the “New” label, which is why I generally use “gnu” if it is in a forum where people will know what I am talking about. (If I am not in such a forum, and the need arises to delineate the recent movement, I reluctantly use the “New Atheist” label because, for better or worse, that’s the name it’s been given. A rose by any other name…)

  • baal

    From the outgroup, new atheist seems to be used as an insult or reads like the author is sneering. The usage by atheists reads to me like an attempt to reclaim a non-pejorative usage. “Fine, call us what you will but let’s look at ______”

  • David Hart

    “My own view on religion is that of Lucretius”

    Can we start calling Lucretius (circa 99BC to 55AD) a New Atheist?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Lucretius was an Epicurean. The Epicureans believed there were gods, but the gods didn’t have anything to do with humanity so it was wrong to worry about what the gods might do to you. So not exactly.

  • Aratina Cage

    I just updated the Pharyngula Wiki page on New Atheism to include a link to Lucretius:

    And add Julien Offray de La Mettrie who wrote L’Homme Machine to the list of New Atheists before there were New Atheists.

  • Aratina Cage

    Oops. My comment must have been trapped by the spam filter. I just wanted to tell you that I updated the Pharyngula Wiki page on New Atheism to include a link to Lucretius, and that we could add Julien Offray de La Mettrie who wrote L’Homme Machine to the list of New Atheists before there were New Atheists.

  • Cafeeine

    How about Robert Ingersoll?
    “A fact never went into partnership with a miracle. Truth scorns the assistance of wonders. A fact will fit every other fact in the universe, and that is how you can tell whether it is or is not a fact. A lie will not fit anything except another lie.”

    “Science is the enemy of fear and credulity. It invites investigation, challenges the reason, stimulates inquiry, and welcomes the unbeliever.”

  • Bronze Dog

    I know I’m irritated by the “new” label a lot of the time. About the only thing I see as new is increased visibility and a culture that encourages that visibility. The core’s the same as always, and the central points are generally well known from the popular speakers with science credentials down to small-time non-expert bloggers like me.

    Assertions that we’re not as talented as “old” atheists really boggle me, especially since they generally won’t specify what we’re allegedly deficient in. Of course, I’d assume that the best “old” atheist books are still circulated because they were good enough to last and that the crappy ones went out of print from poor sales.

    It’s like some people who rant about how 90% of new video games are crap compared to the classics, as if all the old bad games didn’t exist.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    Bronze Dog #6

    Assertions that we’re not as talented as “old” atheists really boggle me, especially since they generally won’t specify what we’re allegedly deficient in.

    Supposedly we’re not knowledgeable about theology, particularly the Christian flavor, and/or philosophy. All the Old Atheists had spent years learning Christian theology so they could deny it in detail. Apparently we’re supposed to know if angels dancing on the heads of pins are waltzing or gavotting before we can ask “what’s your evidence for the existence of gods?”. Likewise the anti-New Atheists love to denounce Dawkins for being weak in philosophy because he dismissed the deist gods in a paragraph or two in The God Delusion.

  • James M

    The “not knowledgeable about Christianity” gambit is always a reference to their special brand of True Christianity tm (usually Aquinas’ First Causer) rather than the supposed straw man Christianity believed in by the majority of believers which, for the sake of the argument, they will call the minority. The lack of knowledge in philosophy concerns actually the lack of respect given to “Ye Moft Noble and Ancient Wifdom of Pedigree of ye Wayf of Aquinaf.”

  • Moe

    Atheists are liars. Everyone knows that God exists.

    • sqlrob

      Prove it.

      Scientifically supported evidence only.

      • Arthur

        Ah, scientism. Everyone’s favourite self-defeating proposition. Consider; where’s the scientific evidence that you should use ONLY scientific evidence?

      • Arthur

        Ah, scientism. Everyone’s favourite self-defeating proposition.

        • Anteprepro

          Consider; where’s the scientific evidence that you should use ONLY scientific evidence?

          Scientism is a straw man, and you should damn well realize that. Those accused of scientism never assert that science is the only way of determining facts and that it is a replacement for logic. I can’t speak for everyone, but I personally think that science is the best and most reliable way of determining facts that can’t be arrived at by pure deduction. That it is the best way we currently have to go about logically reliable inductive reasoning about the world around us. People like you chuck out the “scientism” label with such scorn and condescension, as if the people accused of this high crime are dim-witted philistines. However, it is becoming obvious that the real shallow thinkers are those who throw around this “scientism” label thoughtlessly and at the slightest provocation, with not the smallest amount of time spent contemplating what those accused of “scientism” might actually believe and what their arguments actually are. Who needs such caution when one can simply guffaw about infinite permutations of “science can’t prove science is true” indefinitely?

  • Steven Carr

    The only good atheist is a dead atheist.

    • Buffy


      Is that a threat or just your Christian Love shining through?

      • Aratina Cage

        Steven Carr is not a Christian. He’s an atheist, and I think he meant to be a little terse with that statement.

    • baal

      Steve, why do you consider your post acceptable?

      • Aratina Cage

        You have to read it more carefully:
        The only good atheist (to theists) is a dead (but well published or accomplished) atheist. See? It doesn’t mean that atheists are no good, just that the living atheists don’t get any recognition, which they should.

  • andyman409

    The antagonistic behaviours of many older philosophers like Russell seem to be more justified to me since the quality of apologetics at his time were pretty bad. Its not like there was a minimal facts argument or Plantingas reformed epistemology or anything like that. Nowadays, at least some apologists make an effort to really know their stuff.

    Many that would be described as “new atheists” don’t seem to make that much of an effort to popularising accurate information, such as their annoying endorsement of mythicist books (some like Penn have even endorsed Acharya S’s work). However, I am aware that this is not a very good definition for what a “new atheist” is. Most apologists just use the term to refer to a mean atheist, but i agree that this is a poor definition. Maybe it should be described as cultural movement?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Meh, I don’t think the quality of apologetics has really improved all that much.

      • andyman409

        I was referring to the effort apologists put out- not the actual quality of the stuff. I have claimed before that the quality of apologetics increased, but I dont believe that anymore- particularly after reading those JP Moreland books with the silly miracle stories in them, like “kingdom triangle”.

        But than, does putting more effort into defending a belief really make it a justified belief? Does it make the belief inscrutable? and what if some of the scrutiny is deserved, and some if it isn’t? I dunno, but I can sympathise with those who feel as though they’ve “earned” their justification to believe.

        • andyman409

          * I used the word quality the first time very carelessly. Sorry for the confusion.

        • Bruce Gorton

          Plantinga, is essentially an up-market Deepak Chopra.

          He gets away with his intellectual laziness by being a really bad writer. People seem to have this instinct that says “I don’t understand this, therefore it must be highly intelligent” – when in actual fact it is just that the person writing it is profoundly stupid and armed with a dictionary.

          • grahammartinroyle

            This is what Dawkins referred to as “deepity”, a perfect description I think.

          • machintelligence

            Deepity is actually Dan Dennett’s term.
            This 6 minute clip has several quotable lines in it, including my favorite: “if it isn’t worth doing it isn’t worth doing well.”

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      Some “New Atheists” like Acharya S. Big deal. I know there are “New Atheists” who endorse homeopathy, anti-vax, and libertarianism. As I tried recently to explain to Jen McCreight, atheism ≠ skepticism.

    • plutosdad

      Actually when I stopped studying apologetics in the 90s and decided to study some of “the other side”, I was infuriated when I learned that even the very latest apologetics books were still full of lies. i.e., full of refuted theories from a century ago. They didn’t bother to point out the research that disproved their old ideas. So, I can only believe all those authors were either incredibly ignorant or liars.

      Oh sure some more advanced things were out by Behe, but even his works paled in comparison to the pro evolution books already available for decades.

  • Sastra

    Eric’s comment in the link defined ‘New Atheism’ as “ridiculing and demonizing outsiders without even attempting to understand their views.” It’s a bit hard to tell here which is supposed to be worse — the ridiculing and demonizing part, or the failure to understand. Perhaps ridicule would be okay if you DO understand the views you’re dealing with.

    When the critics of gnu atheism whine about how the gnus “don’t attempt to understand” religion, they often mean that the gnus are using science on religion and you can’t do that. And you shouldn’t do that. God’s not the sort of thing you use science on and religion is really about people’s feelings and identities.

    And the more we say they’re wrong about that and argue for the point the more they repeat that they’re NOT wrong and we obviously aren’t listening to what they said.

    No. We heard. We don’t agree.

  • Bored Nihilist

    Don’t forget Baron D’Holbach! His “Good Sense” basically made all the arguments so-called New Atheists make in their book (fairly shortly after Meslier, in 1772).

  • andyman409

    I see what your saying sastra. I’m gonna have to do a blog post on my own on this topic. To be clear, I think that definition of a “new atheist” is a very bad one. My only critique of the new atheists is that they sometimes say stupid things (like the aforementioned endorsement to Acharya S, which I feel is intillecutal laziness). I dont really know what a “new atheist” is, but if it has to do with someones tone of voice, than I have an ironic Neitzsche quote for you:

    “We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us”

  • Zeb

    New Atheism is a social expression of atheism that is mainly polemic sophistry rather than respectful argument. It’s more concerned with promotion (of the position of the New Atheists’ book/blog/speaking gigs) than exploration of the issue. It is to Atheism what Evangelical Christianity is to traditional Christianity. Maybe that’s why New Atheists mostly insist on taking on Evangelical Christianity, which is a new and intellectually shallow expression of Christianity, rather than mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, or Orthodoxy.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      What exactly does “respectful argument” entail? “Pardon me, but I consider transubstantiation to be theologically unsound” versus “are you shitting me, you idiots actually believe a cracker becomes Zombie Jebus because a guy in a dress utters ‘hocus pocus’ over it”. Because if you look at both those statements, they are actually saying the same thing.

      • Zeb

        There is no argument in either of your statements, but the former has a respectful tone that you would expect from what I might call classic atheism. A respectful tone is a sign that you take the topic seriously even if you find some conclusions about it to be ridiculous. I take classic atheism seriously because it takes questions of god and religion seriously. But anyway the more important distinction is between argument and sophistry. Unserious tone is a pretty good indicator that the person speaking does not have a solid argument, and that has pretty much borne out with the New Atheists. But they sure do get readers, pop culture coverage, rabid followers, and dollars, so I think they are achieving what they set out to do. They’re just not convincing many intelligent believers.

        • baal

          Unserious tone is a pretty good indicator that the person speaking does not have a solid argument, and that has pretty much borne out with the New Atheists.

          You could read for meaning and stop using small minded heuristics to evaluate arguments. I also reject your out-of-hand characterization that new atheists (MOAR CAPS!) don’t argue well. Please take a gander at…well PZ, Christina, and Dennet (and a lot more). They are excellent in supporting their contentions. I don’t see you doing more than hand waving and tone trolling.

        • ‘Tis Himself, OM

          Okay, you’re claiming that gnu atheists don’t understand theology and apologetics. As it happens, you’re wrong. For instance I can describe Aquinas’ five proofs of God and explain the logical fallacies he uses (special pleading, equivocation, and especially begging the question). If you were to wander over to Pharyngula and look at some of the thread where people argue with goddists, you’ll actually see some indepth theological arguing. What you won’t see is a lot of respect from the atheists towards the goddists.

          Your other argument is tone trolling. I can call a spade a spade but I can also call it a fucking shovel.* I’ll use whichever tone I consider appropriate to the time and person I’m discussing goddism with. But even if I’m polite, within a very short time there will be no doubt in their mind, unless they’re a complete idiot, that I have no respect for gods or goddism of any flavor.

          *I can even call a spade a manually-operated, terrain resculpturing implement.

          • Zeb

            I’m not telling you what you should do, and I’m not tone trolling. I’m just pointing out what really is the difference between New Atheists and classic atheists. It’s not just repectful tone, though that is an obvious difference; it is also a respectful for the questions and a respectful engagement with the theist arguments. New Athiests made a choice – rally the like-minded rather than convince the believers and the undecided truth seekers. Congratulations, it seems to be working. Its just that no one who takes philosophy of religion seriously has reason to take New Atheists seriously. They signal their lack of seriousness with tone and the demonstrate it with sophistry.

          • ‘Tis Himself, OM

            You ARE tone trolling. Someone who says “They signal their lack of seriousness with tone” is specifically and literally tone trolling. I cannot take your objects to new atheists seriously if you’re either too blind or too stupid to recognize your own tone trolling.

            In spite of evidence to the contrary, you still pretend that new atheists are iggerant stoopids who don’ know ’bout goddic philosophification. Yet you want me to take your arguments seriously.

            Sorry, tone troll, but I’m not impressed by accommodationists like you. Maybe you should try peddling your sophistry on a less sophisticated audience.

          • josh

            @Zeb above
            I’m afraid you simply don’t know what you’re talking about. Your ‘difference’ is about as compelling as the difference between the ‘Old Scientists’ who had to seriously engage the ideas of Special Creation and the ‘New Scientists’ who dismiss it out of hand. There’s a difference in social context as religion loosens it’s stranglehold on culture, but it’s not the Atheists’ fault that your ideas have long since been revealed for the empty contrivances they are.

            ‘New’ Atheists have made the decision that convincing believers and the undecided will not be accomplished by feigning respect for juvenile absurdities. The thing is, no one who takes rationality seriously takes philosophy of religion seriously. (Except as a persistent delusion to be debunked.)

        • Chris Hallquist

          There are some things I take too seriously to speak respectfully about, including the most evil aspects of orthodox Christianity.

          • plutosdad

            I agree, but I don’t think transubstantiation is one of those important issues.

      • plutosdad

        Because you have no idea what it’s like to be brainwashed every day of your life from a young age by a church that manipulates emotions like a battering husband. It affects everything you think and believe. If you did understand that, you wouldn’t take that tone you do in your second statement. Most of us had a hell of a time getting out from under that oppression.

        • plutosdad

          Actually sorry for double post, I think my objection is not the tone, but rather when people ask “how can you believe that!?” incredulously.

          There has been quite a bit of study on how people can believe things that make no sense, and it would be better to study that, and then use that information to engage people, than to say “how can you believe that?” of them, since they can’t answer it to begin with.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      The reason why gnu atheists spend most of our time confronting evangelical Christians is because they’re the loudest and using their religion the most obnoxious socio-political agenda (although the Catholics are coming up close behind). You have to realize that many gnu atheists, I am one, could actually care less if you believe in the cracker becoming Zombie Jebus or not. We do care that Boyd K. Packer (the number two man in the Mormon Church) uses religion to push his homophobia or Pat Robertson uses religion to justify his hard right politics.

      If goddists were to practice their religion quietly and not bother anyone else, then I wouldn’t say a word to them unless they brought up their goddism. But when Ken Ham tries to have creation myths taught in public schools in place of science, then I’ll speak up loud and long.

      • Gary

        Guy walks into a bar and says,
        “If goddists were to practice their religion quietly and not bother anyone else, then I wouldn’t say a word to them unless they brought up their goddism. But when Ken Ham tries to have creation myths taught in public schools in place of science, then I’ll speak up loud and long.”

        I think theists and deists across the world should stop forcing their values on your poor dumb atheist dupes.
        We should really do something positive and legal to help you out in freeing from the religious bonds that impose nasty things on you against your hatred of God, religion etc.

        Here are my suggestions for a couple of new items of legislation:
        1. We should ensure atheist rights by making religious holidays illegal for poor atheists to have to suffer in.
        We shall make law that states that “No atheist be forced or even allowed to partake of leisure time on weekends”. This is a horrid imposition imposed upon since both Saturday (Sabbath) and Sunday (Lord’s day) are religious holidays. Thus from now on, we legislate that “atheists shall be required to report for work Saturday and Sunday, seven days a week”, 365 days per annum.

        Of course the we must apply the same rules to Xmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and all other days off originated in religious beliefs. Atheists shall henceforth be obliged to work during Xmas, Easter, Thanksgiving or any other holiday founded upon in purely religious beliefs. This must take effect as of April 1, 2013. Because April is “April fools day” and atheists are fools.

        Just being logical mind you. Atheists do believe in logic, well of course their version is mere neuronal electrochemical movement in 3 lbs of meat (brain) and they believe themselves to be “nothing but a pack of neurons” – (atheist F. Crick, Astonishing Hypothesis)

        2. The above restrictions which will alleviate the poor atheists deep suffering on these holidays (originally holy days), shall henceforth apply to the various freedoms, humans rights and such that were all founded upon Judeo/Christian or other religion’s values.

        We must recognize that atheists, having no moral foundations and thus no foundations for rights and such, must suffer immensely under such imposed rights. If they want to invent their own morals based on personal subjective opinion, we shall henceforth accept whatever values they must, as moral parasites, borrow from religion, as long as said values do not imply, killing millions of Jews, Christians, etc etc. or even other atheists (like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc did).

        Furthermore, let it be declared that atheists not be allowed into any Hospital, Social service, orphanges etc, found upon the above mentioned Judeo/Xian values or other religions. They shall be free to seek aid in secular humanist founded and managed services. (If they can find any, if not well we don’t want to impose religious values upon them now do we so…).

        3. It shall be declared illegal for atheists to participate in public political demonstrations since freedom to speak ones erroneous views on ones own government was banished under atheist governments across the world long ago and we can’t impose freedoms upon that they do not want and have viable reason for for.

        4. It shall no longer be required or allowed for atheists to attend any public school classes, wherein any kind of religion is taught or implied. This will include, creationism, ID theory and of course Secular Humanism (which they themselves declared a religion) or its origins myth Darwinism -their own religion. We cannot be biased or double minded here. No religion and nothing with religious (metaphysical) underpinnings shall be forced upon them.

        To be fair we’ll also allow deists and theists the equal but opposite privileges, which shall not be taken up in this inquiry at this time.

        Let it be noted that all this is because we recognize that they think “life, the universe and everything”, besides being 42, is meaningless, purposeless, created itself from nothing at all and will end in eternal oblivion.
        We must no longer hinder or contrive against this belief by forcing them to accept purpose, meaning, morality, love, beauty, humor… and all other “evolutionary adaptations” that they consider as mere illusions (as written in their own scriptures “Origin of Species”, Decent of Man”, “The God Delusion” etc. by their own priests).

        If the said atheists wish to lose more rights that we have imposed upon them in the name of God, we shall set up public meetings for them to come and verbalize their griefs in order to see what further measures could be legislated.

        Thank you, that will be all for now.

        PS: to Tis OM, Atheists like your own inane drone high priests of atheism will be so happy in hearing this Good News that we truly rejoice with you.

        • ^imwithstupid

          You’re a clown, Gary. In your stream of vapidity, you didn’t raise a single good point or offer a single decent argument.

  • Gary

    “New Atheist” references the salient fact that patent incompetents, like Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, et al., don’t have a bloody clue and couldn’t reason straightly on the issues if their lives depended on it, while the older, smarter, more respectful atheists did.

    There are still a few of those old types around, but the new kids on the block have brought nothing but incompetence, proselytism (evangelism) and stupidity into the fray. They make a shambles in the gullible minds of millions who erroneously think Dawkins et al. are actually telling the truth, can reason properly and know what they’re talking about. They are not and they don’t. Not one of them!

    They are incompetent philosophers and even more incompetent theologians and logicians.
    I doubt PZ could reason his way out of a “1+1 = 5″ proposition.

    As Berlinski so accurately noted, “There is not a single first class intellect among them”.
    However there are many such genuine “free-thinkers” (a term that should be banished from atheism since Harris’ idiotic new book claims there is no such thing as a FREE thinker or FREE anything else), in the ID camp and in the creationist camp.

    One can only hope that these wanna be philosophers or thinkers are far better at their own sciences, so help us God.

    • Dorfl

      Whyever are you ranting underneath a year-old post?